In June, Trulia launched Commute Maps - travel time information for driving and public transport in some major US cities. This event did not go unnoticed at the time. It is notable that this feature was built using freely-available map data from OpenStreetMap and transport data in GTFS format from a variety of sources. To my knowledge, the tight integration of property search and transport information is unique to Trulia among the big players in the US.
Trulia's launch announcement and related commentaries were full of
heatmaps. I do not like heatmaps. Variations in color area a bad choice for conveying numeric data. I did not originate this idea and I am not alone in the anti-heatmap camp. This TedxWaterloo presentation
gives the short version and this paper from some IBM researchers hits the detail.
The heatmap was replaced by a simple green border around the area that is reachable within the allowed time from the target location via the specified transport type (driving or public). The border acts as a filter on search listings, allowing one to see only listings that meet the travel criteria and any other criteria that may have been specified like price or number of bedrooms or whatever. This is a significant evolution from interesting toy to useful feature. A transport-minded home-hunter could use Trulia to identify all of the places in a target city that meet his or her basic housing criteria - price, bedrooms, and time from home to work - something not easily achieved using the competition.
With these transport data features and the related presentation of crime data, Trulia is keeping the crown as king innovator of the real estate data visualizers - probably an ongoing result of their acquisition of movity around the end of 2010. It is curious to me that the other major property search portals have not added similar features, especially given that the data is freely available and the usefulness to the consumer is so clear. Zillow and Realtor.com either don't believe these features help gain user preference, do not value user preference as much as Trulia, or think that there are better ways to gain it. I think many would agree that innovation in consumer-facing property search applications is rare. My suspicion is that the big boys have concluded that differentiating themselves in front of the end user is not the way to maximize the bottom line - they are more invested in fighting for customers (e.g. real estate agents) than for home hunters.
In case someone does want to focus on the consumer, I have a few ideas about how integration with commute data could be further improved. The most obvious issue is data accuracy. The driving time data assumes no traffic. That is clearly not a good assumption as (by definition) almost everybody drives when there is traffic. It's not an easy problem, but Trulia could make the driving time information much more credible by combining it with historical traffic levels. Users probably want to answer questions like "where can I afford a house big enough for my family that is a 30 minute drive at 9 AM on a Monday from my work?" Another idea is to integrate cycling and walking times - modes of transport that are on a clear upward trajectory. Lastly, it would be cool if Trulia could get some of its users involved in the OpenStreetMap project (think Wikipedia for maps), by giving them the ability to flag map issues (e.g. incorrect street layout or connectivity) or to directly contribute to the map. Free data is cool. Helping improve free data is more cool.